In 1890 Hansford Duncan Dade Twiggs lost the celebrated Cody-McGregor murder case to rival attorney, Tom Watson. Shortly thereafter Watson defeated Twiggs’s friend George Barnes for Congress in a campaign enlivened by Twiggs’s offer to engage Watson in a duel. The duel was conducted in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution, Watson went to Washington, and Twiggs resumed his lucrative Augusta law practice.
In February 1891 Twiggs was retained as counsel by Cornelia Dennis Harrison, an intelligent and strikingly beautiful woman from Charleston, South Carolina, who was suing her husband for divorce. In those days (and well into living memory) it was easier to get a look at a two-headed dog than to get a divorce in the Palmetto State. The Georgia courts along the state line from Clayton to Savannah functioned as divorce mills for disillusioned Carolinians. The Harrisons had been married seven years and had a four-year-old son. They had been separated for some time and had frequently quarreled over custody and visitation. Mrs. Harrison had moved into an Augusta rooming house with her son, waiting to establish Georgia residency so she could file for divorce. In the meantime her husband filed a custody suit, claiming that she was unfit to care for their child.
The custody case opened on June 11, 1891, with testimony described by one reporter as “racy, breezy and smutty.” Judge Twiggs read Mrs. Harrison’s complaints against her husband: that he was immoral, vicious and indolent, had failed to support her and their son, had repeatedly cursed her and threatened to kill her. Mr. Harrison’s attorney, Twiggs’s neighbor Jospeh Ganahl, responded with testimony that Mrs. Harrison had been forced to leave her rooming house for scandalous behavior, having received frequent and lengthy visits from a older married man who sent her cases of beer and once tried to force his way violently into the house. This man being none other than H.D.D. Twiggs.
Twiggs waxed furious and court adjourned. A crowd gathered around him as he denounced Attorney Ganahl’s behavior as “ungentlemanly.” Ganahl’s son was present and took a swing at Twiggs, who went after the young man, but was restrained by friends. On the following day Twiggs took the stand and admitted that he had frequently visited the rooming house and had sent a case of beer to Mrs. Harrison. Ganahl made his argument for half an hour, then Twiggs rose to make a defense of Mrs. Harrison and of himself that moved the audience to wild applause. In his own defense he said that while he was not a pious man, he was a gentleman. Judge Roney awarded custody to the boy’s mother. The divorce was granted shortly thereafter.
Twiggs’s own married life had been a wreck for many years. His wife had put him out of the house in 1883 but had not sought a divorce. On February 4, 1893, Mrs. Twiggs reported that a white man entered her bedroom around 5 in the morning, attempted to suffocate her with an ammonia-soaked rag, and tried to strangle her. The noise attracted the servants and the intruder fled. The newspaper report concluded, with real or assumed naivete, “Judge Twiggs was out of the city and it was a good thing for the burglar that he was.” Twiggs had indeed just left the city, or was just about to do so. His destination, Crooking, South Dakota.
South Dakota was the only place in the country which allowed uncontested divorces, and it allowed them after a 90-day waiting period. On his 90th day in Crookings Twiggs filed suit, and on May 15 he was granted a divorce. He immediately caught the train for Chattanooga, and there checked into the Staunton House hotel, where the guests included “Mrs. C.E. Harrison and son, Charleston, S.C.”
The had supper, called for the headwaiter to find a minister, and were married in the front parlor of the hotel. The couple returned to Augusta, but found public opinion so outraged against them that they bought a place in Wilkes county. Little was heard from Judge Twiggs until 1896 when a letter dropped from the pocket of George M. Brinson, a wealthy real estate man and politician from Emanuel county. The person who picked it up thought the Judge might be interested and sent it to him. It was from a woman, inviting Brinson to meet her at Tybee Island, and asking him to bring a gentleman friend along, as she would be accompanied by another lady. It was from Cornelia Twiggs.
Twiggs challenged Brinson to a duel; Brinson like Watson before him, declined, and Twiggs announced that he would shoot him on sight. The Judge soon backed off on his threat, defending the family honor by impugning that of his wife’s woman friend, whom he publicly accused of being the author of the letter.
The Twiggses moved to Savannah and stayed out of the papers for more than two years. In February 1899, Cornelia Twiggs filed for divorce, charging adultery and extreme cruelty, including severe physical abuse. Twiggs denied the charges but asked that if a divorce were granted, that he be allowed to remarry, a condition not always granted in those days.
Three days after Twiggs responded to his wife’s suit a highly respected black preacher in Waynesboro was called out of his pulpit and shot to death in front of his church by white men. The case was soon to bring Twiggs face to face with his old nemesis Tom Watson and to usher in the most harrowing six months of Twiggs’ life.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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